Keeping the Boat under Control

There are several ways you can influence the course and the performance of a boat beyond the control of the sails. Knowing all of them and mastering their use is crucial for successful navigation. Sailing schools normally dedicate most of the time in beginner’s courses to practicing them – in this article, I outline what they are and how to familiarize yourself with them.

When sailing a small dinghy, there are four main factors that contribute to the course of the boat, which can be adjusted and influenced by the crew: the orientation of the rudder, the depth of the centerboard, the arrangement of the crew’s weight and – of course – the rigging with the sails.

In a dynamic and constantly changing environment such as a sailing dinghy, most of these factors need constant adjustments to optimize the performance of your vessel. In the following paragraphs, I will shortly outline how each of these forces can be controlled and used to change the course of the boat.

Four Forces to Master your Dinghy

1.) Depth of the Centerboard: The blade of your centerboard will typically be variable and you can change it whilst you are sailing. Generally speaking, you will want to keep it lowered when you sail windward and raised when you sail leeward. A well-adjusted centerboard should aid the boat not to drift sideways when sailing windward, but a boat that is sailing away from the wind would be slowed down by a low centerboard.

2.) Adjustment of the Sails: It is quite straight-forward to think of the sails as a factor contributing to the course of a sailboat, but efficient trimming of the sails can be much more difficult than many beginners might assume. Experienced sailors will trim their sails instinctively – out of their guts –, but beginners should practice the “textbook” way:

To do that, release the sails in moderate wind until the edges start to shake. Then pull in the line controlling the sail in, just until the edges stop their motion. This way, the angle of the sail will be ideal for “catching” the maximum amount of wind.

3.) Distribution of the crew’s weight: If you have ever watched dinghies sail, you have almost certainly seen the crews of small boats leaning over the sidedecks. They don’t do that just because it’s cool and fun (though it is), but rather to change the center of balance of the boat and place it more firmly on the water’s surface.

You should always aim to get the boat closer to the ideal, upright position. Then the speed of the boat is optimized. Therefore, the crew’s weight can be conveniently used to compensate for strong heeling forces during turning maneuvers.

4.) Orientation of the rudder: Not surprisingly, the rudder contributes to the course of the boat, too. Rudders of dinghies are controlled through an extension called “tiller” by the helmsman of the crew. The “power” of the rudder depends on the size of it.

It is also based on the amount of water it moves, which in turn is determined by the speed at which the vessel sails. The faster you sail, the more dramatic the impact of your steering will be. If you move the tiller to the right, the bow will turn left and the other way round of you sail forwards.

In practical sailing, you will need to adjust all of these four control forces frequently. It is good fun to practice that with a well-matched crew. The more familiar you get with these techniques, the more fun you will have sailing more advanced maneuvers. A good way to practice them is by making turns in which you leave three of the four controls constant and try to turn only with the remaining fourth one.

This will give you a good sense of how much you can achieve with any of these forces and how to balance them out most efficiently. Keep in mind that sailing is a demanding sport. Learning the basic techniques is the first step to competitive sailing or boat races. Most of it all, though, they are meant to improve your skills in the sake of safety, fun and the over-all sailing experience.

Further Reading

Wikipedia on Dinghy Sailing

Information on Sailboats on

DMOZ on Sailing

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